Turning Kids From India's Slums Into Autodidacts

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  • Everybody knows that the Internet will transform education, but nobody yet knows how. Most of the models sound like dull attempts to reproduce, at a distance, the medieval habit of schooling—one teacher telling a bunch of children what to think. Now, though, I think I have glimpsed a better idea: the self-organized learning environment (SOLE).

The credit for this approach belongs to Sugata Mitra, an Indian physicist who, a decade ago, began to install public "hole in the wall" computers in the streets of Indian slums. He then sat back and watched how quickly the impoverished kids learned to use the technology. The experiment, which has now gone global, inspired the book that inspired the film "Slumdog Millionaire," in which a boy from the slums improbably learns enough to win a TV quiz show.

Dr. Mitra's next brainchild, SOLE, takes this dynamic into the classroom. He is convinced that, with the Internet, kids can learn by themselves, so long as they are in small groups and have well-posed questions to answer. He now goes into schools and asks a hard question that he thinks the students will not be able to answer, such as: "How do you stop something moving?" or "Was World War II good or bad?"

He gives them no clue where to start, but—crucially—he insists that the school restrict the number of Internet portals in the class to one for every four students. One child in front of a computer learns little; four discussing and debating learn a lot. What happens next is entirely up to the students. All they know is that Dr. Mitra is coming back to be told what they have found.

He arrives with a second question that links the learning more closely to the curriculum, such as: "Who was Isaac Newton?" and then "What's the connection between Newton and stopping things moving?" The kids teach themselves the laws of motion. Of course, the Internet is fallible as a source, but so are teachers and textbooks. For the noncontroversial topics that make up the curriculum, even Wikipedia is pretty good.

In a village in Tamil Nadu called Kalikuppam, Dr. Mitra asked a class of poor Tamil-speaking kids to use the Internet, which they had not yet encountered, to learn biotechnology, which they had never heard of, in English, which they did not speak. Two months later he was astounded at what they had taught themselves.

In 2006, Dr. Mitra moved to England, became a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, and tested SOLE in schools in a poor urban neighborhood, teaching teachers to be facilitators rather than pedagogues.

On their own, children can get about 30% of the knowledge required to pass exams. To go further, Dr. Mitra supplements SOLE with e-mediators, or the "granny cloud" as he calls it: amateur volunteers who use Skype to help kids learn online.

The experiment is now going global. Schools in Australia, Colombia, England and India are trying SOLE and sharing their experiences of how to improve it. The U.S. has been slow to join, says Dr. Mitra, because Americans tend to view the program as relevant only to the developing world. But schools in Nevada, Maine and San Francisco have recently called on him to explain his ideas.

One of my philosophical passions is bottom-up order. Human beings have a hard time understanding that some of the finest complexity in the world comes about through spontaneous emergence, not top-down diktat. This is true of ecosystems and economies, of genomes and cultures, of embryos and encyclopedias.

Education, though, feels like one of those things that has to be top-down: There has to be a teacher and a taught. But plenty of people educate themselves. Is it possible for everybody to be an autodidact, now that knowledge is so accessible online?

—Matt Ridley's many books include, most recently, "The Rational Optimist" and "Francis Crick." His website is rationaloptimist.com.